It is now more than seven years since the world has seen a woman racing on Grand Prix weekend. Susie Wolff broke the mould when she appeared in the practice session for Williams at the British Grand Prix in 2014, the first woman for 22 years to do that, and since her retirement in 2015 she has had a host of roles within motor racing – Mercedes ambassador, TV analyst and most recently team principal for Formula E team Venturi Racing.
But today the hope for a woman Formula One driver is as far away as it was back then. Wolff says we are a “long way away” from a woman becoming a full-time driver on motorsport’s premier circuit. It has been 30 years since Giovanna Amati tried unsuccessfully to qualify for the Brazil Grand Prix – the last time a woman came close to appearing in a Formula One race.
Not for a lack of trying, though. Wolff is trying to be an inspiration for women getting involved in motor racing with her “Dare to be Different” initiative, which invites schoolgirls aged eight to 14 to participate in motor racing-related activities.
“We just need more young women entering the sport, there are just not enough women competing to rise to the top,” she says. “Naturally it would help to have one young woman racing, I believe when you can see it you can believe it, open up the sport, make it more accessible and you will inspire the next generation.”
Formula One has never been more popular thanks to the popularity of Netflix’s Drive to Survive series, but with it they see the men stars at the top of the game, the likes of Lewis Hamilton, Max Verstappen and Charles Leclerc. Wolff feels it will take a lot of effort and time to change preconceptions.
“At my time at Williams, I had Felipe Massa and Valtteri Bottas, it was a very strong line-up so I don’t have any bitterness that I didn’t get my chance,” she says.
“But there were some very tough moments along the way, walking into a garage and people having a lot of scepticism when they see you in the car, so you felt you had to prove yourself more than your male counterparts. That was part and parcel of what I was used to.
“I realised performance is power, if I perform then my gender is irrelevant going into the best teams, I have more of a chance to be successful. Motor sports is one of the few sports where you don’t get to see the athlete, when I had my helmet on I wasn’t even visible. So I would just get my helmet on and not get distracted.”
Wolff looks back with great pride at that first appearance, to be “a British driver taking place in the British grand prix for one of the most iconic teams in Formula 1″ and she has many hoping to emulate her. Jamie Chadwick, who won three all-woman W series championships had been touted as a future F1 driver, but has moved over to Indy Lights in the US. Wolff said it is a “great shame” she did not get the opportunity in Formula 1 and is sceptical about the series, which has run into financial difficulties, as a stepping stone.
“The limitation of this series is that the winner should at least have been supported to go on and achieve further up the ladder. The sport isn’t segregated, if you want to make a living as a racing driver, you need to compete against men.”
More recently, Wolff’s attention has turned to motorsport management. At first she was not sure she would work in motorsport as her husband Toto (the chief executive of Mercedes-AMG Petronas F1 team) was already working there. She was initially a cynic of Formula E, a single-seater motorsport championship for electric cars, but adapted seamlessly to the role, taking a team from near the back of the grid to nearly winning the last world championship. She describes her leadership style as “authentic” and focused on managing expectations as she planned a turnaround of the fortunes of Venturi.
“I said this is not going to change overnight, it’s a three-year turnaround. Initially I had to do a lot of restructuring. In our very first year we won a race, which was unexpected, but I kept the goals realistic, this was a team that didn’t know how to win races, that weren’t used to fighting for points, but slowly but surely we started to believe in each other and we ended up gaining a lot of momentum, that brought a great energy into the team.”
Wolff left the role of team principal in August and promised she would give herself “three months off up until Christmas” and she says now it is time to embark on her next challenge. An inspirational figure for women in motorsport and a trailblazer, she is sure to make her mark at her next venture too.
Susie Wolff is among the speakers at the Pendulum Summit, taking place at the Convention Summit in Dublin from January 25-26